From UFOs to COVID conspiracy theories, we’re all struggling with the ‘truth out there’

For ufologists, the US government is eagerly awaiting report of “unidentified aerial phenomena” can be a great disappointment. It goes further than any previous report in admitting unknowns, though conspiracy theorists will likely dismiss it as a cover-up.

But they’re not the only ones with a tendency to dismiss anything that contradicts their accepted narrative.

Take the “laboratory leak theory”. In January, for example, the Washington Post not only called the idea that COVID-19 was man-made “fringe theory debunked”. He also called the theory that emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology “fringe theory disputed”.

Facebook has banned claims that the virus was made in a lab to be false and debunked in February. He has now reversed that decision, along with US President Joe Biden ordering his intelligence experts to “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” by the end of August.

Read more: Conspiracy theories on the right, cancel culture on the left: How political legitimacy was threatened in 2020

The issue has been complicated by hyper-partisan media confusing the Facebook ban with the censorship of the lab leak theory. But also a lot dismissed the lab leak theory too easily confusing it with other conspiracy theories.

Read more: The COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis is plausible because accidents happen. i should know

We are all inclined to accept a narrative and stick to it, regardless of the evidence. This problem is not just “out there”. Behavioral research offers lessons we all need to keep front and center.

See what we want to see

Even though we pride ourselves on being independent-minded, we can still fall prey to cognitive biases.

This is partly due to overconfidence in our own decision-making abilities.

It is not only the result of the phenomenon known as Dunning–Kruger effect – in which we tend to overestimate our competence in areas where we are incompetent. Highly intelligent people are also likely to believe in highly irrational ideas, as demonstrated by the list of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who adopted scientifically questionable beliefs.

Part of it also has to do with believing what we want to be true.

We settle for most of our opinions with nothing better than instant judgment or instinct. Our internal “press officer”—a mental module that convinces us of our own infallibility—then justifies our reasons for holding those opinions after the fact.

Behavioral scientists call this motivated reasoning – when your personal preferences cloud your understanding of reality.

As Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown, 2005): “Our selection decisions are much less rational than we think.

Most of us are overconfident in our own decision-making abilities.
Lyas Tayfun Salci/Shutterstock

What is the length of a string? You tell me

One cognitive bias particularly amplified by social media is good old-fashioned conformism.

The power of conformist thinking was graphically demonstrated by psychologist Solomon Asch in his classic 1956 study showing that we can even ignore evidence from our own eyes when it contradicts the majority view.

Asch gathered groups of participants and asked them to judge which of the three numbered lines was the same length as a target line.

Comparison of Solomon Asch's Compliance Lines of Experience.
Comparison of Solomon Asch’s Compliance Lines of Experience.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Which numbered line is the same length as the one on the left? The answer should be easy. But in Asch’s group, only one person was a real participant. The other six were “fools”, tasked with sometimes giving the same obviously wrong answer before the subject of the experiment responded.

Result: about a third of the time, the subjects adhered to the opinion of the majority, even if this one was obviously erroneous. The painful lesson: we are social creatures, influenced by the group, willing to even sacrifice the truth just to fit in.

Locked in the echo chamber

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites can reinforce all of the above instincts by creating “echo chambers” that validate what we choose to believe.

Exposure to different ideas does not sit well with the online media economy – in which platforms and content creators on these platforms compete for limited attention by appealing to preferences and biases.

We appreciate echo chambers.

According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we seem to be born with a “complacency gene– an inherent need to be right. We are more likely to defend our opinions by criticizing others. We find comfort in validation.

Once we have made our opinion known to others, we are stubbornly reluctant to change course. Seeming cohesive can become more important than looking fairwe will therefore make every effort to support opinions that are subject to scrutiny.

These weaknesses could be endearing if they didn’t have such dire implications. Believing misinformation is an undeniable problem.

Read more: Coronavirus misinformation is a global problem, but which myth you fall for probably depends on where you live

But we’re going to need another way to deal with conspiracy theories than just trying to ban them. Seeking to enforce a single accepted narrative is not the answer.

If Facebook or the mainstream media are the arbiters of who is heard and who is not, then we will be pushed further into our own filter bubbles, and conspiracy theorists into theirs.

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